Against the odds, House Democrats gained a bit of steam through the long summer recess, notching some surprising political victories while tapping the energy of voters infuriated by the Supreme Court’s decision to quash abortion rights.
The party’s challenge now is to build on that momentum this month, using September’s short legislative window — the last before the midterms — to score eleventh-hour victories and polish a closing campaign argument they hope will prevent a GOP rout at the polls in November.
Democrats have been buoyed by a string of recent legislative victories, including a historic health and climate bill enacted last month, that have boosted President Biden’s standing through the late weeks of summer. They’re newly energized by the Supreme Court’s elimination of Roe v. Wade, which has led to a spike in voter registration among women in certain states. They’ve been helped by falling gas prices, which have declined each day for the last three months. And they’re getting an assist from former President Trump, whose legal troubles — most recently related to his handling of classified government documents at his Mar-a-Lago home — have led Republicans to shield the party’s standard-bearer from charges that he’s abusing his power more than a year and a half after leaving office.
Outwardly, Democrats are optimistic that the combination of late-cycle factors will, at the very least, put some wind at their backs, limit the GOP’s anticipated gains and deny Republicans a comfortable cushion if they do win control of the House in November, as expected. Fueling those hopes, several of the nation’s top election handicappers have steadily shifted races in the Democrats’ favor over the past month.
But Democrats have their work cut out.
Tuesday’s news that inflation continues to soar sent the stock market into free fall and put Democrats on the defensive as they were celebrating their climate victory — a bill called the Inflation Reduction Act — with Biden at the White House.
Democrats are also facing challenges when it comes to their legislative agenda.
House lawmakers returned to Washington on Tuesday with the primary goal of funding the government and preventing a shutdown on Oct. 1. That bill will require Republican support in the Senate, but the greater threat to an agreement is shaping up to be the internal Democratic clash over the fate of a proposal designed to expedite the federal approval of energy infrastructure projects.
Party leaders had promised Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia, a vote on that fast-track proposal as part of winning his support for the much broader health and climate package. The plan, according to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), is to combine Manchin’s permitting reforms with the short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, which Congress must pass this month to keep the government open.
But many House Democrats are furious with the idea of accelerating environmental reviews , particularly for fossil fuel projects, amid a global climate crisis. Almost 80 House lawmakers — a mix of liberals and moderates — urged their leaders recently to keep the permitting reforms out of the spending bill, warning that they would hurt minority and other vulnerable communities disproportionately.
“Such a move would force Members to choose between protecting EJ [environmental justice] communities from further pollution or funding the government,” the Democrats, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
It’s not the only internal disagreement that could surface this month.
Democrats are also feuding over legislation to increase law enforcement funding around the country. A group of moderate lawmakers, hoping to burnish their pro-police bona fides ahead of the elections, have pressed for months to vote on that funding. However, they’ve met resistance from a group of liberals, many of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus, wary of boosting police funding without tougher measures for reining in police abuse, which affects minority communities disproportionately.
The impasse forced Democratic leaders to scrap plans for a vote on the policing legislation in July. And heading into the September session, it’s unclear if those differences will be resolved in time to stage a vote before November — a dynamic that is frustrating the centrists.
“I would venture a guess,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said before the recess, “that probably every single member of Congress has either a department in their communities that either receives COPS grants funding or wants to receive COPS grants funding.”
Separately, another group of Democrats is pressing party leaders to vote this month on legislation to ban members of Congress from owning or trading stocks, a concept that was initially opposed by Pelosi and Hoyer.
“As we work to ensure no members of Congress are profiting off their work with stock trades, continued delays in bringing legislation to the floor are unacceptable,” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) said Tuesday. Republicans are targeting Pappas this fall in what is viewed as a toss-up race.
History is also betting against the Democrats, as the midterm cycle is routinely brutal for the party of first-term presidents. Redistricting and the retirement of 31 House Democrats have given the GOP an added boost this election year. And while Biden’s approval rating has ticked up in recent weeks, it remains well underwater — a figure that won’t be improved by August’s inflation numbers.
“Democrats’ so-called ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ does not appear to be working,” Mike Berg, a spokesman for the House Republicans’ campaign arm, said dryly on Tuesday.
Democratic leaders remain unshaken.
On the domestic front, they’ve been encouraged by falling gas prices, steady job growth and the stunning victories in a pair of special elections over the recess — one in New York, another in Alaska — where abortion rights appear to have played an outsized role.
On the international stage, they’re touting Ukraine’s recent advances against Russian forces — fueled by billions of dollars in U.S. weapons — and last month’s deadly strike on the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a Pentagon drone.
In a volatile year, they’re vowing to defy the historical trends and cling to power.
“Some pundits in Washington were saying, ‘Well, I don’t know — in the off-year … the president’s party doesn’t win.’ We never accepted that,” Pelosi said at a recent stop in Oregon to tout the Democrats’ climate bill.
“They say conventional wisdom,” she added. “It isn’t conventional and isn’t wisdom.”